Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Surge update: bad news edition

The surge is still proceeding fairly well, but it's running into a major problem that has implications far beyond the success of the current operation.

The Iraqi forces, which have been sidelined for much of the actual fighting, are still not ready for their most basic task: holding the territory once U.S. troops clear it of insurgents.

Several senior American officers have warned in recent days that Iraqi soldiers and police are still incapable of maintaining security on their own in the most crucial areas, including Baghdad and the recently reclaimed districts around Baqouba to the north.

It's a pattern that has emerged elsewhere: provinces are turned over to the Iraqi military with great fanfare -- and within months U.S. or British troops have to return because the Iraqi troops aren't up to the job or are actively making it worse.

The problem is one that I've discussed before, and it affects both the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police (scroll down a bit to find the relevant part, or go here to read the New York Times story the post is based on).

Although some Iraqi units appear competent, U.S. officials privately complain that many others still lack ammunition, weapons and an adequate supply network to operate on their own. Leadership in many units is weak, and the force has yet to develop the professional spirit to cope with adversity.... [There are] high rates of absenteeism in the Iraqi military — including desertions, vacations and AWOLS — which Dempsey said average about 25 percent among Iraqi units at any given time.

Iraqi troops manning checkpoints often wave through cars carrying women or children without proper searches, U.S. troops complain. Some residents of a contested area south of Baghdad say Iraqi police and soldiers turn a blind eye to insurgents as long as they don't attack their checkpoints.

It's an open question whether the mostly Shiite military will ever be able to maintain order in Sunni areas. The obvious solution -- patrol those areas with Sunni units -- has its own risks, notably what happens when those units are shot through with insurgent sympathizers.

If this problem doesn't get straightened out soon, it won't matter how well our part of the surge goes. In the end, the performance of Iraqi forces will decide the fate of our misadventure in Iraq.

Which is why more and more Republicans are coming out in opposition to the war -- a harbinger of things to come this fall, when the next funding bill comes up for debate. Today it was two GOP Senators -- Richard Lugar and George Voinovich -- that jumped ship.

"We must not abandon our mission, but we must begin a transition where the Iraqi government and its neighbors play a larger role in stabilizing Iraq," Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, wrote in a letter to Bush....

"The longer we delay the planning for a redeployment, the less likely it is to be successful," said Lugar, who plans to meet later this week with Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser.

It remains to be seen whether either would actually vote to end the war if it came to that. But the trend line is clear. If America decides to bring the troops home, it will be a bipartisan effort.

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